Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study

In Content-Area Writingauthors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zimmerman and Nancy Steineke make a distinction between writing to learn or to think and writing to demonstrate what was learned or thought. Writing to learn, they say, is usually short, spontaneous, exploratory and personal—that is, it’s writing that helps the writer probe, discover, understand or clarify something for him or herself. Writing to demonstrate learning, on the other hand, is more substantial, authoritative, polished and planned, and it’s aimed for an audience.

This fits nicely into my own belief that writing is both a tool and a product. It helps the writer figure out what he thinks then allows him to convey it to others. I worry, though, that we don’t always make this distinction clear, both for ourselves or our students, especially when it comes to graphic organizers, which Daniels & Co. list as a writing-to-learn strategy that can help writers map and cluster ideas. Students, I think, often see graphic organizers as products or assignments to be quickly dispatched and completed rather than as tools to push thinking. And I have to wonder whether they do so in part because we set them up that way.

This was brought home to me and the teachers I worked with in the second grade author study of Tomie dePaola I wrote about several weeks ago. To helps students keep track of individual books, consider how the elements of a story worked together to support the author’s message, and eventually discover patterns across the books they read, we designed two graphic organizers aimed at helping students think deeply. The first was a large attribute chart where the students could note the elements of each story, with a final column left for whatever connections and observations they might notice and make between books. The second was a Venn diagram that we thought would support the comparing and contrasting of the books for that final column.

Both were designed with the best of intentions. And both didn’t work quite as intended because the students seemed to view them as products to complete, not as tools to deepen their thinking. And so we had to push our own thinking to revise and refine these tools.

With the attribute chart, for instance, what the teachers and I noticed was that the students saw each of the columns as separate and discrete. They could identify the elements—the characters, the setting, the problem and solution and sometimes even what they called the lesson. But they weren’t thinking about how the elements were connected and how they contributed to the overall effect of the story. In particular, they weren’t considering how the kind of person a character is affects how they do or don’t deal with their problems, nor how the way those problems get solved can shed light on the themes or lessons of the story.

Instead they tried to pin adages, such as “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” on the stories. And while sometimes those sayings did, indeed, fit, they didn’t always capture the richness of the stories, nor the various things the students had noticed. And so we made two critical decisions. The first was: No more canned adages or maxims. We’d encourage students to use their own words and consider how the lesson was embedded in the story, not something tacked on at the end, which we made more explicit by adding a question beneath the element headers, like this:

The second was that we wouldn’t reduce each book to just one lesson or theme. Instead we’d open the door to multiple interpretations in acknowledgement of the fact that different readers notice and attend to different things and that even simple picture books can’t always be summed up in one idea. Here, for instance are transcripts of two different interpretations of Tomie dePaola’s The Art Lesson:

We had to go back to the drawing board, as well, with the Venn Diagram because, not seeing the organizer as an opportunity to stretch thinking, the students simply took what was on the attribute chart and plugged it into the organizer. And, as you can see, the results were superficial:

Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and Andy by Tomie dePaola

To counter this, we decided to put them into groups with a basket of books at each table and ask them to talk solely about what similarities or patterns they noticed recurring across the books. Then once they had a chance to trade ideas, we asked them to individually jot down what they’d noticed on a sticky note. And this time their thinking was far more insightful.

Adelita and Gopher tried to solve their own problems. For example, Adelita tried to make Javier come to her, and Gopher tried to find the right colors to paint the sunset.

Both characters Adelita and Little Gopher have a helper to solve their problems. For example, Esperanza helped Adelita to the party and the dream vision let Little Gopher to go to the hill and paint the sunset.

Through this process, students came away with a deep understanding of Tomie dePaola as an author. They saw how in seemingly very different stories—from original tales like the Strega Nona books to retellings of Indian legends and Irish folktales to the more autobiographical stories—he kept circling some of the same ideas or themes: The need to be true to your own self, even if that path is hard; the great gift of having people who help and support you; the consequences of meddling with what you don’t understand; the need to give back to others what they have given to you; and the importance of advocating for yourself.

At the very end of the unit, students watched a video of Tomie dePaola talking about his life, and they literally gasped at the connections they heard between his life and the themes in his books. This allowed them to also circled the writing truth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently articulated when he wrote:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has ever been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded  and humbled in just that way before.”

As for those graphic organizers: At best they served as a pre-assessment, showing us what the students could already do and where we, as teachers, could push in. What helped far more was setting up the students with opportunities to talk—and with us, as teachers, having a deeper vision of where that talk could lead.